Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Patrick Wilson
MPAA Rating: (for brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 12/7/16 (limited); 1/20/17 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 19, 2017
A behind-the-scenes look at the formation of the most popular and iconic fast-food franchise, The Founder has a focus problem. The protagonist is not either or both of the men whose surname, just beneath the familiar golden arches, adorns the tens of thousands of locations around the globe. No, the movie's central figure is the man who saw what the McDonald brothers were doing at their hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, thought it was a revolutionary idea, and hounded the brothers until they agreed to let him start opening up locations in the Midwest.
There's nothing inherently wrong with telling this man's story, even if the screenplay by Robert D. Siegel keeps reminding us of the other two men. The point is how a man determined to succeed can easily become the villain. The problem is that Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) cannot see himself as the villain of this story. He is, at best, a salesman, and his chief product is himself. He can get as far as realizing that his own surname would be a hindrance if he were to open up his own restaurant with the McDonald brothers' speed-based system. What he refuses to understand is that his last name is also representative of his chief product—himself, whose business acumen, personality, and sense of loyalty, along with everything else that we might associate with one's character, happen to be a crock.
It's this divide between the actual man and the way he sees himself that contains the movie's most dramatic potential. After presenting so much of this story as the gradual triumph of a down-on-his-luck upstart, Siegel's recognition of that divide, though, comes so late in the movie that there is little time to explore the idea in any meaningful way. The movie becomes just another in a line of age-old tales about a man gaining the world at the cost of his soul.
Ray begins the story selling top-of-the-line milkshake mixers on the road, visiting little drive-in diners across the Midwest with a prepared, optimistic pitch about how the quick and abundant supply of milkshakes will increase the customers' demand for them. He's turned down at every stop, but a little hamburger shack in California has ordered multiple units. Suspecting an error, he calls the place, and one of the owners says it was. To be safe, they need an additional five mixers. To see what all the fuss is about, Ray drives out to San Bernardino.
The owners are Dick (Nick Offerman) and Maurice "Mac" McDonald (John Carroll Lynch). Their business is booming beyond their wildest dreams. They have invented a food-preparation system that means a customer will have his or her order within a matter of half a minute, not the half-hour that comes with the drive-in joints Ray so regularly frequents.
The brothers' story is related at lightning speed via a dinner conversation with Ray and a series of flashbacks. It's one of the movie's most invigorating sequences, as Dick and Mac explain—and director John Lee Hancock shows us—how they developed their "Speedee Service System" of food preparation on a tennis court filled with chalk outlines of kitchen equipment, with Dick conducting their employees' motions from atop a ladder. Theirs is a story of hard-work and innovation (When they decided to change locations, they put the entire building a trailer and cut it in half to get under a low-hanging overpass) paying off in dividends after a series of failures.
Theirs, essentially, is the old-fashioned story of American success, and it's telling—if a little unfortunate—that the movie is not their story. Ray represents an entirely different beast, even if he seems a harmless, resourceful entrepreneur of a similar ilk to the brothers. He begins as an almost hapless salesman (Loan officers at various banks come close to laughing at him when he asks for a loan to open a chain of restaurants, since they remember his prior "can't-miss" business opportunities), and by the end, he has transformed into a real-estate tycoon disguised as a restaurant franchisor.
The two central conflicts of the story are Ray coming to business disagreements with the McDonald brothers and his marriage to Ethel (Laura Dern), whose support he either ignores or, when she dares to ask fairly basic questions about the tenability of his plans, outright dismisses. Ray's distancing from both parties is gradual, as the brothers reject cost-saving measures, as well as Ray's requests for a bigger share of the profits, and Ray meets Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the wife of a prospective franchise owner who has the same worldview as Ray—of taking everything one can get when one can get it.
There's an intriguing character study beneath the movie's layers of wheeling-and-dealing, contract negotiations, squabbling over business practices, and fights about the identity of the restaurant that two men built and another man transformed (One could reasonably argue that the movie is more concerned with the evolution of the business than with the development of any of the characters). Keaton plays up Ray's nearly con man-like attitude in a performance that moves—albeit effectively—from one caricature to another. That impression, though, is mostly an issue with the screenplay, as The Founder presents a portrait of businessman with little concern about the "man" part of the character.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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